From the very opening credits, Underwater is an unnerving experience. Along with listing the cast and crew who made the movie, the credits are filled with news headlines and pull quotes that seem to be giving away all the juicy details of the movie you are about to see. You read about some evil corporation that is operating a high-risk drilling operation at the bottom of the ocean, an operation that may be bringing up a lot more than natural resources. Is the drilling dangerous, the news clippings question. Did the drills disturb some deadly creatures of the deep? Is the crew in danger? Are they even alive?
Aren’t these questions, you start to wonder, that the movie should be answering over the next 90 minutes? Why is director William Eubanks (The Signal), front-loading all the good stuff and solving the mystery before a single frame of the story is even shown?
Well, relax. Like that slow ride up the rails to the first drop in a giant roller coaster, Eubanks is just setting you up for the thrills to follow. Minutes after we meet the first character in the movie, a mining technician named Nora (Kristen Stewart) and watch her in the seemingly innocuous act of brushing her teeth, the ride really begins and the thrills don’t let up until the screen goes dark at the end, leaving you breathlessly ready to get in line and take the ride again.
And all that stuff you read in the credits pays off along the way; because you already know all the background info to the story, the movie can concentrate on the action and adventure as we watch the mining crew — or what is left of them once the walls start to implode — try to get to the surface before they implode, too. It’s a brilliant way to tell this particular story.
A word of caution, however, before the fun begins. Just as theaters put up little warning signs that the special effects in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker could cause seizures, there should be signs at the door to theaters showing Underwater warning anyone with even the slightest case of claustrophobia that there are scenes in the movie — OK, most of the movie — that may set off a severe panic attack. They should probably add a footnote explaining what claustrophobia is for anyone who doesn’t think they have it but who develops a sudden irrational fear of having no escape or being closed-in while watching the movie.
That may sound like overkill, but wait until you watch Underwater. Then you can complain.
As for what happens on the screen, it all starts back with Nora brushing her teeth. She hears a noise, feels a drop of water fall from the ceiling onto her hand and — WHAM! — the walls start exploding as the ocean crashes in. Nora runs. She partners up with a few survivors along the way and they run. The ocean keeps exploding through the walls. They keep running. The tension and claustrophobia levels start creeping up the anxiety dial and you comfort yourself with the thought that because the movie just started none of the stars will get killed right away. Right? And then one of them graphically implodes and all bets are off.
Of course, with any story set up to be this intense, there are moments of character development dropped in along the way, chances for the audience to take a breath and learn more about the people running up there across the screen because the more they know about them, the more they will care about them. But it’s pretty clear that the people working for the evil mining company don’t really know each other that well to begin with; they’re just people who happen to work in the same giant company who might have passed in the hall or nodded hello in the cafeteria. All they really have in common when we meet them is the human drive to survive. The screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad gives them just enough quirks and characteristics to be more than cardboard cutouts waiting for the next wave to hit. Just be careful who you root for because they might not make it to the end. And that is just one of the things that make Underwater as entertaining as it is.
The actors deserve a lot of credit, too. The supporting cast, especially Vincent Cassel as the crusty commander of the drilling site and Jessica Henwick as the young research assistant, are particularly good at fleshing out the bones on their otherwise thinly drawn characters. The other actors, for the most part, don’t really get enough time or space to do anything that makes them memorable, which is something you will probably only think about long after you watch the movie. One’s tolerance for the performance of the always wisecracking T.J. Miller will depend on one’s tolerance of T.J. Miller.
Stewart, on the other hand, is phenomenal, giving a performance that is so raw it’s almost too much to watch even from the high and dry safety of your movie seat. A lot of people can act freaked out in a movie, especially at that point when the creatures you read about in the opening credits start showing up. Stewart doesn’t look like she’s acting; she looks freaked out and the director’s decision to put a camera inside her diving suit helmet so we get an extremely close and intimate view of her freaking out really pushes the audience to the edge, whether they are claustrophobic or not.
The whole experience is absolutely exhilarating!
- John Black, Underwater